Emerald Isle

The Wooing of Etain

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Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales from the Mythological Cycle

A Retelling from The Yellow Book of Lecan

Long ago, in the time of the Tuatha Dé Dannan, one of their number became the high king of all Ireland, and his name was Eochaid Ollathair. He was a powerful magician of that sorcerous race, and by his workings he could change the weather and ensure the harvest was plentiful, as well as many other things.

His wealth was vast and he was much beloved by his people, but for all that he wasn't the happiest, for his eye had fallen on the wife of one of his subjects, Elcmar, whose name was Etain. And she herself was not unwilling, except for the considerable power of her husband. Fair as the first snow and lovely as a breath of wind across a calm sea, he was smitten and desired to have her, and in doing so caused events that would have been best left undone.

Eochaid hatched a scheme, coming up with an excuse to send Elcmar on a journey to a nearby Dún and return with tidings, but he cast powerful spells upon him before he left, such that night and day became one and he felt neither hunger nor thirst.

And while Elcmar wandered oblivious in the wilderness for months on end, Eochaid came to Etain and they lay together, and she bore him a son, whose name was Aengus. So long was Elcmar bespelled that she was fully over it by the time he returned, believing himself only gone a day, and Eochaid had spirited away the babe to the house of Midir to be raised.

Midir's house was in Tethba, a strange and magical part of the country, for he was one of the lords of the Sidhe, the people of the mounds, whose numbers were not known. Yet still, Eochaid was a powerful worker of wonders, and so the boy was accepted among thrice fifty youths who played ball all day long, and thrice fifty fair maidens who sang and danced.

There he was also called the Mac Óg, which means, the son of youth, for how else were they to call one who had been conceived at sunrise and born before sunset?

Aengus was raised there for nine years, in that uncanny place, and Midir told him that he was his own son, and so he treated him. He was marvellously swift of limb and strong of back, swift o mind and fair of face. But the other youths disliked his airs and swagger, for they knew themselves fosterlings, and further, they knew he was too.

One day a Fir Bolg called Triath made some rash comment to Aengus, and Aengus responded that it would be better for a peasant to address him with a little more respect!

“Would it indeed?” said Triath, “better yet if you knew who your parents were to begin with!”

And Aengus ran weeping to Midir and asked what this meant.

“No great problem,” said Midir calmly “for your father was Eochaid who is high king over all Ireland, and your mother was Etain, she of great beauty, and wife of Elcmar. I raised you here, for knowing of your existence would cause him pain without end.”

Well nothing would do for Aengus but that he be taken to meet his true father and ask of him lands for himself, as far away from the tongues of the Fir Bolg as he could get! And Midir agreed, so they travelled to meet Eochaid in Uisneach of Meath, the heart of Ireland, that was close by Tara and many other marvellous places of the ancient world.

The three met and clasped one another, and Eochaid asked Midir what this visit meant.

“He wishes to be acknowledged by his father, and lands given to him, for it does not seem right that the son of the King of Ireland should be landless!” said Midir.

Eochaid agreed but rubbed his forehead as a man with trouble on his mind.

“Happy I am to give him the land, but there is one problem – it is already occupied!” he said, “for it is the land of Elcmar, and I have no wish to annoy him further, although it is the best land around, the Brú na Boinne.”

So the three held council as to how they would overcome this problem, until Eochaid the crafty said to his son, “Wait until the Samhain, for on that day all men are at peace and on good terms with one another – then go to the Brú armed with a sword, for Elcmar will have nothing but his gold-brooched cloak and a forked hazel stick as he watches the youths playing. Then threaten his life, only sparing it if he allows you to be king of the Brú for a day and a night!”

“But what good will that do?” said Aengus.

“When he demands his lands back, you call upon my judgement as High King, and I will say that it is in days and nights that the world is spent, and the Brú is yours.”

And so Aengus set out on the following Samhain, and threatened Elcmar, who in return for his life, agreed to let Aengus be King of the Brú for a day and a night. After that time had passed however, he returned and demanded his lands back with savage threats and fury, and why would he not! But Aengus refused, and said instead that their case should be heard before Eochaid and all the men of Ireland.

To this Elcmar could hardly disagree, so they made their way to the High King, and put their arguments to him. Eochaid passed his judgement as he had said he would.

“So then this land accordingly belongs henceforth to this youth,” said Elcmar.

“It is fitting,” said Eochaid “You were taken unawares on a day of peace and amity. You gave your land for mercy shown you, for your life was dearer to you than your land, yet you shall have land from me that will be no less profitable to you than the Brú.”

He then granted Elcmar Cleitech, that was three of the lands about the Brú, and the fruits of the Boyne as well, and Elcmar was pleased enough with the agreement, so he went to his new home and made a strong place there.

A year to the day later Midir came back to visit Aengus, and found him watching a great sporting match between two groups of youths, with Elcmar on his own mound in Cleitech, watching the same match. It happened that a brawl broke out between the two sides, but Midir held back Aengus from intervening.

“Stay right where you are,” he said “for if Elcmar decides to come down too, it might end very badly. I'll straighten this out!” and so saying, he went down among the young men and with some difficulty broke up the fight, although by mischance a split of holly caught him in the eye and what did it do but pop out of his head!

He came back to Aengus and held out his hand with the eye in it still, and great sorrow was on him.

“Oh I wish I'd never come for visit, now look, I can't see the land I visit nor return to the land from whence I came!” wailed Midir, him being a king himself he must needs be whole in body and mind or his own people would reject him.

“Not a bit of it,” said Aengus, “we shall visit Dian Cecht and he will set that eye back in your head!” and so that great healer of the Tuatha did.

“You must stay longer, even a whole year, so that you can see all of my lands and my hosts, my household and my herd,” said Aengus, but it was the custom of those times to give to a guest whatever they might wish, as long as it could be done, by the ancient laws of hospitality.

So Midir asked for his guest-price, and that was “a chariot worth seven female slaves, clothes more fitted to my station, and the fairest maiden in all of Ireland.”

“I have all of those excepting one,” said Aengus, “who might be the fairest maiden in Ireland?”

“She is a princess called Etain,” said Midir, “daughter of Ailill to the north and east, and by my pools and stones in all my long years I have never seen such beauty, such grace and such sweetness.”

Well Aengus travelled to the house of Ailill in Moy n'Inis, where he was made welcome and stayed for three nights. He then announced who he was, where he'd come from, and what he was after.

Ailill was unimpressed, knowing well that he'd have no control over Aengus given the power of his father, and he told Aengus that if he shamed his daughter, there'd be no saving him. Aengus then asked the bride-price that would make her his own.

“No hard matter,” said Ailill, “clear the forests and scrub from the twelve plains that are in my land, so that they might be settled for assemblies, strongholds, games and habitation, tilled and pastured.”

“It shall be done!” gulped Aengus, and he left that place to go back to his father Eochaid, High King of Ireland. Eochaid sent his men and they cleared the twelve plains in a single day.

“Well done!” said Ailill, “but not yet done – for now I would like you to draw out from this land twelve great rivers from the bogs and moors, so that we may have fish from the sea and dry land where once there was swamp!”

“That's... fine!” said Aengus with a cheer he did not truly feel, and back he went again to Eochaid.

With a sigh the king sent not his men this time, but his wondrous powers of sorcery, and bent the bogs and marshes into twelve rivers, large and small, which flowed to the sea, and Etain's people profited greatly by them, but still Ailill's appetite was not satiated.

When Aengus returned to claim his prize, Ailill halted him with a word.

“First,” said he, “you must leave the maiden's weight in gold and silver, for that is my portion of their price, all else goes to enrich her own people.”

This at least Aengus needed no help with, and soon he had the gold and silver piled upon the floor to the weight of Etain and more. With that, they bade farewell to the hungry halls of the maiden's weight in gold and silver, and returned to Midir, who was already seated in his new chariot, wearing his new finery. Well pleased he was with that, and even better pleased with Etain, and she with him, and so they lay together.

A year and a day he stayed, but as he made ready to leave, Aengus pulled him aside to whisper words of warning.

“Best to keep an eye on the fair Etain, for the woman you married and who awaits your return, Fuamnach, has a fierce cunning and much knowledge and skill! She was raised by the druid Bresal Etarlam until you married her, and few are the arcane arts she does not know.”

Well naughty old Midir went back to his strange realm, and there Fuamnach greeted him and made him welcome. Fuamnach offered to show the two around and see the places they had not yet visited, coming at last to their house. Etain went before them into the bedchamber, and Fuamnach told her to sit down.

“The seat of a good woman you have come into!” she hisses, and struck her with a scarlet rod cut from a quicken tree, turning her into a pool of water!

Fuamnach fled to her foster father, the druid Bresal, and Midir could not stay in the flooded house, so he left without wife or consort.

In the summer's heat and with the wind blowing through the open windows and doors, the seething of the ground shrank the pool over time, so all that was left was caterpillar, which turned into a beautiful purple butterfly.

She was as big as a man's head, the comeliest in the land, sweeter than pipes and harps and horns was the sound of her voice and the hum of her wings. Her eyes would shine like precious stones in the dark, and the fragrance and the bloom of her would turn away hunger and thirst from any she touched. The spray of the drops she shed from her wings would cure all sickness and disease and plague in anyone she passed. To listen to her and gaze upon her would nourish hosts in gatherings and assemblies in camps.

Midir only had to take one look at this magnificent creature and he knew it was his Etain, and as long as she stayed near he never took another wife or lover. He fell asleep to the sound of her gentle humming, and if enemies approached, she would awaken him.

But of course Fuamnach, the spurned wife, was not yet done wreaking her revenge, for ever higher did the fires of jealousy and hate burn in her heart!

Fuamnach decided one day to visit Midir, but before doing so she wrapped herself in strong walls of enchantment, the promises of the powers of the Dana - Lug, the Dagda, and Ogma.

Midir was enraged to see her coming, and he swore and cursed like a lunatic, telling her she wouldn't leave the place alive, but not a finger did he dare lift against her for fear of the powers that protected her.

Fuamnach sneered and said she regretted nothing, for it was better to look after herself than others, and if she came across Etain anywhere in Ireland, she'd do her terrible harm, whatever shape she hid in, for such was the wrath and terrible power of the Tuatha of old.

But crafty Fuamnach had heard and knew well of Midir's new friend, the purple butterfly, and quick enough she guessed that it was none other than Etain! She knew that whenever he saw the great butterfly, Midir loved no other woman, and found no pleasure in music or in drinking or eating when he did not see her and hear her music and voice.

Calling on the dark and unseen children of old night, Fuamnach summoned a fierce wind of assault and magic, hot with infernal fires, forcing Etain to flutter far from Midir. For seven years she could not find a summit or a tree or a hill or a height in Ireland on which she could settle, but only rocks of the sea and the ocean waves, until at last she landed exhausted on the cloak of Aengus.

His keen eyes saw well enough, and his ears had heard of this magical creature, so he said

“I bid you welcome, Etain, tired and weary wanderer, worn down with care and loss, you have met the wrath of Fuamnach! And after all I did to win you for Midir, now it seems like an idle task, for it has ruined you.”

Aengus gathered her into the fleece of his cloak, and brought her to his home in the Brú, where he left her into his sun lantern, with crystal windows, wide for passing in and out of. He carried it wit him wherever he went, and even when he slept it was by his side. He comforted and fed her fragrant and wondrous herbs, until her brightness and colour returned, thriving on their precious fragrance.

And yet Fuamnach heard of even this, and her heart was curdled with bitterness and fury. Concealing her bile, she went to Midir.

“Send for Aengus,” she said “I would make peace between us at last, and I repent of my fury.”

But when Midir sent a messenger to Aengus, she crept out not far behind, and circled round the Brú, entering by her eldritch arts. Finding the butterfly that was Etain, she again unleashed the same hell-wind, and it carried her out of the sun lantern and back upon the high and merciless winds.

In misery and weakness she fluttered along the blast of wind until she lit at last upon the rooftree of a house to the far north, where a feast was taking place, and from there she fell into the golden goblet that stood on the table before the wife of Etar the champion.

She was swallowed whole in one great and merry gulp, and that is how she came to be conceived again as a human being, and was born to that house, known as Etain, daughter of Etar.

By now, it had been a thousand and twelve years from the first begetting of Etain by Ailill until her last begetting by Etar, for the people of the tribe of Dana lived long and long, and counted little the passing of the years. And even today, among those with a trace of their blood, upon them age lays but a light hand.

Etain was raised as the champion's true daughter among the fifty daughters of other chieftains. It happened that one day they were bathing in the shallow waters of the northern sea when they saw a tall horseman riding towards them. His broad brown steed pranced and cantered, and curly was its tail and mane.

In red and green he was clad, and armoured about in silver and gold, with a great silver shield of an old sort. A five pronged gold-banded spear was in his hand, and bright blond hair was held back by a golden ring about his head. He halted a while nearby and they gazed on his splendour with awe and fascination, when he uttered this lay:

This is Etain here today
at Sid Ban Find west of Ailbe,
among little boys is she
on the brink of Inber Cichmaine.

She it is who healed the King's eye
from the well of Loch Da Lig:
she it is that was swallowed in a drink
from a beaker by Etar's wife.

Because of her the King shall chase
the birds from Tethba,
and drown his two steeds
in the pool of Loch Da Airbrech.

Full many a war shall be
on Eochaid of Meath because of you:
there shall be destruction of elfmounds,
and battle against many thousands.

'Tis she that was sung of in the land;
'tis she that strives to win the King;
'tis she the Fair,
She is our Etain afterwards.

Then he rode off, and nobody knew where he had gone, and even less where he came from.

Well, you can imagine the rage felt by Aengus when he arrived at Midir's sidh and found no Fuamnach! Knowing well that he had been played false, and that if Fuamnach came across her there would be no mercy shown, he wheeled his horse about and rode as quick as he could back to the Brú.

He came into his house to see the sun lantern's crystal shattered upon the ground, and Etain long gone. Scouring about in red wrath, he found Fuamnach's track, and followed her back to the house of the druid Bresal Eterlam. There a ferocious but brief battle ensued, and the both of them were consumed by the fires of Manannan, perhaps caused by a spell cast wrongly, or the wrath of the powers of the Dannan at their conflict.

For so it was written:

Fuamnach the foolish one was Midir's wife,
Sigmall, a hill with ancient trees,
in Bri Leith 'twas a faultless arrangement,
they were burned by Manannan.

At that time there was a new king of all Ireland, and his name was Eochaid Airem, perhaps descended from the original Eochaid, or simply having taken his name. All five parts of Ireland submitted to him, each with its own king. He commanded them to attend a great festival at Tara, so that he could decide their taxes and tributes, but they refused to attend, for he had no queen – and what was a king in those days without a queen?

So High King Eochaid sent forth his envoys to every part of the country, looking for the fairest maiden that could be found, and a maiden she had to be, for he declared that no other man should have known her before him. Each of the envoys returned with a maiden, but fairest of them all was Etain daughter of Etar, and Eochaid married her, for she was his match in beauty and form and lineage, in splendour and youth and fame.

But what happened next was a surprise to everyone! His brother, whose name was Ailill Anguba, was sorely struck and overcome by Etain's ethereal, ancient beauty, and oftentimes would gaze at her furtively over his cups. He was deeply ashamed but could not hide from his feelings, for desire is stronger than character.

He kept these feelings to himself, and he sickened as a result, a man at war with himself, and so sick he became that he came close to death. Fachtna, the High king's healer, came to him and gave this diagnosis:

“One of the two pains you have that kill man and no physician can heal, the pain of love and the pain of jealousy.”

And yet still Ailill Anguba did not confess the cause of his ailment. As he lay dying in his Dún, Eochaid went on a tour of his dominion, leaving Etain alone with him to oversee his grave-digging, his lamentations and his cattle-slaughter.

Each day she came to him for conversation, and each day his sickness lifted little by little, which was noticed by Etain. She asked him the cause of his sickness, and he declared at last his love.

“Pity that you have been so long without telling it," said she, “had we but known you should have been healed a while ago.”

“Even this day I shall be whole again if you be willing,” said Ailill Anguba.

“I am willing indeed," said she.

And she came to him every day as he lay sick to bathe his head and carve his meat, and to pour water on his hands. When thrice nine days had passed, Ailill Anguba was fit as a fiddle, and he asked her:

“When shall I have from you what is still lacking to cure me?”

“You shall have it tomorrow,” said she, “but not in the prince's dwelling shall he be put to shame. Come to me tomorrow on the hill above the court.”

Well I can tell you that Ailill Anguba watched through the night, but when the hour came for his tryst, he fell fast asleep, and didn't wake until the next day.

Etain went to meet him, and found instead a man who looked very like him, who said he could go no further due to his weakness and sickness, so she returned home.

The next day Ailill Anguba awoke and there was much confusion between them, for he had no memory of any tryst, and felt it was his sickness muddling his mind. But Etain was sympathetic, and said they could meet again that very night, so he built a huge fire and kept  bucket of water by his side to wash his eyes, in order that he should stay wakeful.

But again he fell fast asleep, and three times more this same thing happened, until on the fourth tryst, Etain challenged the man who met her for their romantic encounter.

“Tis not with you that I have trysted,” said she, “who are you that have come to meet me? The man with whom I have made a tryst, 'tis not for sin or hurt that the tryst has been made with him, but that one fit to be king of Ireland might be saved from the sickness that has fallen upon him.”

The figure in the shape of Ailill Anguba ceased his moaning and griping and looked at her with clear eyes, saying

“It is more fitting for you to come to me, for you were Etain Echraide, daughter of Ailill, and I was your husband. I have paid your huge brideprice in great plains and rivers of Ireland, and had left in place of you your weight of gold and silver.”

“Who are you?” she asked.

“No hard matter,” he responded, “for I am called Midir! It was the the sorcery of Fuamnach and the spells of Bresal Etarlam that parted us. Will you come with me now?”

“I will not,” she said “for I am the wife of the High King of Ireland – will I trade that for the company of a man I don't know?”

“It was I,” said Midir, “that put love for you into Ailill's mind, so that his flesh and blood fell away from him. And it was I that took from him all carnal desire, so that your honour might not suffer. But come to my land with me if Eochaid bids you.”

“Willingly,” said Etain, and returned to her house, where she found Ailill Anguba cured of both his sickness and his lust, and soon the High King returned with rejoicing for the good outcome.

Later that summer, and a lovely summer it was, warm and fulsome, Eochaid Airem, the High King of all Ireland, from his slumber and went to the terrace to gaze upon the radiant colourful plains of his realm. He paused in surprise though, for standing before him on the terrace was a strange warrior!

Clad in a purple tunic, with golden hair bound by a golden band, of shining blue eyes and carrying a five pointed spear behind a gem-studded white shield, he was an unexpected guest, since the courts had not yet been opened and Eochaid had not seen him in Tara the previous night.

Calling out a challenge, he asked the fair warrior what his name was.

“Not famous,” said he, “I am Midir.”

“And what brings you to my court?” asked Eochaid.

“Why, I seek to play fidcheall with you, oh High King!” replied the warrior.

“In truth I'm good at fidcheall,” said Eochaid, “but the queen is asleep, and my fidcheall board is in her house!”

“I have here,” said Midir, "a fidcheall board that is not inferior,” which was true, he had a silver board and golden men, and each corner was lit up by precious stones, with a bag for the men made of plaited links of bronze.

Midir set up the board, but Eochaid held up his hand.

“I will only play for a stake,” he said.

“And what shall that be?” asked Midir.

“It's all the same to me,” replied Eochaid.

“If you win,” said Midir, “you'll have from me fifty dark grey steeds with dappled blood-red heads, pointed-ears, broad-chested, with distended nostrils, slender limbs, mighty, keen eyes, huge, swift, steady easily yoked, with fifty enamelled reins. They shall be here at the fifth hour tomorrow, if you are agreeable.”

Indeed Eochaid was amenable, and agreed to pay the same if he lost. So they played, and Midir lost, then took his board and himself away, although Eochaid didn't know how he was coming or going.

The next morning the agreed-upon stake arrived, and Midir popped up beside the High King, who to his credit didn't jump or even blink.

“What is promised is due,” said Midir, “would you care for another game?”

“Willingly,” said Eochaid, “but only for a stake!”

“If you win,” said Midir, “you'll have from me fifty young boars, curly-motted, grey-bellied, blue- backed, with horses hooves to them, together with a vat of blackthorn into which they all will fit. Further, fifty gold-hilted swords, and again fifty red-eared cows with white red-eared calves with a bronze spancel on each calf. Further, fifty grey wethers with red heads, three-headed, three-horned. Further, fifty ivory-hilted swords. Further, fifty speckled cloaks, but each fifty of them on its own day.”

Overhearing this conversation, Eochaid's foster father took him aside and asked where Midir had come by all this wealth.

“You must be careful of him, and get the best use from him,” Eochaid's foster father warned, “it is a man of magic power that has come to you, my son, lay heavy burdens on him.”

And in the fidcheall games that followed, High king Eochaid laid upon Midir famous tasks, to clear Meath of stone, to put rushes over Tethba, a causeway over Moy Lamraige, and a wood over Breifne, of which the poets write:

These are the four things
that Eochaid Airem imposed
on many a manly-visaged throng
with many a shield and spear:

A causeway over Moin Lamraige,
a wood over Breifne, without difficulty,
a clearing of stone from the hillocks of great Meath,
and rushes over Tethba.

“But this is too much, and too hard!” said Midir.

“These are the stakes,” said Eochaid implacably.

“Then if you win,” said Midir, “grant me one request – as much as you can prevent it, let no man or woman step outside their own door until dawn tomorrow.”

Eochaid agreed, but told his steward to set a watch on the causeway, to see how this great feat was to be achieved. He reported that it seemed to him as though all the men in the world had come to the bog. They piled their clothes into a great hill, and Midir went up and stood on the top, urging on the host on every side. From the sound of it, you'd think everyone on earth was shouting!

Next, clay and gravel and stones were place upon the bog, not by the foreheads of oxen as the men of Ireland were used to doing, but rather by the backs and arms of the people of the mounds! Whole trees and trunks they laid as the foundation of the causeway, and there would be no better causeway except the High King had disobeyed Midir and left a watcher, so there were some defects in the work. As the Steward told it, there was no magic power to surpass what he had seen.

As they talked, they spotted Midir approaching, and him looking warlike and with an evil glint in his eye. They were afraid to see him coming, as well they might be, but Eochaid greeted him nonetheless.

“Fierce and unreasonable was the burden you laid upon me,” said Midir, “and now I'm angry at you!”

“I an not angry at you,” said Eochaid, “perhaps, to set your mind at ease, we can play another game of Fidcheall?”

“Agreed,” said Midir, “and the stake shall be one wish from either of us,” and that day Eochaid lost the game. Eochaid stayed calm, but asked Midir what he would have for his wish.

“My arms around Etain and a kiss from her,” said Midir.

Eochaid was silent for a while, then said "Come a month from today and that shall be given to you."

And Midir recalled the soft song he had sung to Etain the year before:


O Fair Lady, wilt you come with me
to the wondrous land wherein harmony is,
hair is like the crown of the primrose there.
and the body smooth and white as snow.

There, is neither mine or thine,
white are teeth there, dark the brows.
A delight of the eye the number of our hosts,
every cheek there is of the hue of the foxglove.

A gilllyflower is each one's neck,
a delight of the eye are blackbirds' eggs.
Though fair the prospect of Mag Fail,
'tis desolate after frequenting Mag Mar.

Though choice you deem the ale of Inis Fail,
more intoxicating is the ale of Tir Mar.
A wondrous land is the land I tell of;
youth departs not there before old.

Warm sweet streams flow through the land,
the choice of mead and wine.
Stately folk without blemish,
conception without sin, without lust.

We see everyone on every side,
and no one sees us.
It is the darkness of Adam's transgression
that hath prevented us from being counted.

O woman, if you come to my proud folk,
a crown of gold shall be upon your head
honey, wine, ale, fresh milk, and drink,
you shall have with me there, O Fair Lady.

And what happened next was written in the book of Druim Sneachta. In readiness for the visit from Midir, Eochaid the High King mustered the flower of the warriors of Ireland to Tara, and the very best of the war bands, then he arranged them in circles around his stronghold, and manned every wall and door with a fell-handed warrior.

The king and queen sat in the middle of the house with the doors locked, knowing well a mighty magician was on the way. Etain was serving the lords on that night, for the serving of drink was a special gift of hers.

And sure enough who did they see coming at the midnight hour but Midir, walking into the courtroom of Tara as bold as brass! Always a handsome fellow, that night he was even fairer. Everyone was astonished and silence held sway, but Eochaid gulped and made him welcome.

“I have come for what has been pledged to me,” said Midir, “let it be given to me. What is promised is due. What was promised, I have given you.”

“I hadn't thought about it,” said Eochaid, although in truth he had thought about it a great deal.

“Etain herself promised me that she would come away with me,” said Midir, causing Etain to blush.

“Do not blush, Etain,” said Midir, “it is not unfaithful of you. I have been a year,” said he, “seeking you with gifts and treasures the most beautiful in Ireland, nor do I take you without Eochaid's leave. Did you think all these things happened by chance?”

“I told you,” she said, “I will not go to you unless Eochaid yields me, and if he does, you may take me.”

“I will not sell my wife,” said Eochaid, “but if Midir wishes to put his arms around Etain in the middle of the house, as you are, that is fine.”

And with that Midir approached the lady, putting his weapons in his left hand and his right arm around her, he kissed her and with a whoosh, they disappeared up the chimney hole, and those watching outside swore they saw two swans soaring away from Tara!

Eochaid and his warriors were shocked and ashamed, and set out upon the instant to chase after them, stopping to rest in many places, such as the fabled Oweynagat.

Across fairy mound after fairy mound, sidh after sidh, they followed in warlike fashion, bringing with them mighty oxen and many men of broad back, digging up each mound as they went. Eochaid was filled with a terrible rage at the treachery done to him, and he was determined to dig up every sidh in the country if that's what it took to find his wife. And truly, the might of a High king was to be feared, even by the sidhe.

When they began digging at Sidh Ban Find, one of those inside came out and told them the woman was not there, but instead they should go to the home of the king of the Sidhe mounds, to the north, and dig there instead.

They reached this mighty mound and began their digging, but they were a year and three months at it, getting nowhere, what they dug up one day would be restored the next morning!

In frustration Eochaid decided a trick had been played on him, so he went right back to Sidh Ban Find and began digging again. One of those within came out to appeal his vandalism.

“What have you against us, O Eochaid?” they asked, “We have not taken your wife. No injury has been done you by us.”

“I will not leave,” said he, “until you tell me how I might get my wife from that magical mound!”

“Take blind whelps with you,” he was told, “and blind cats, and set them loose after and before you work, each and every day.”

Thus instructed, he returned to the home of Midir, Sidh Bri Leith, and set to work with vigour and vengeance in their eyes, and this time their efforts paid off! As they were razing the mound, who should come out but Midir himself.

“What do you have against me,” asked Midir, “you do me wrong, and have put great troubles on me – as well as selling your wife to me! Do me no more injury.”

“She will not be with you,” said Eochaid firmly.

“As you wish,” said Midir, “she shall not. Your wife will come to you at the third hour hour tomorrow, so leave me be if that sits you well enough!”

Eochaid accepted and returned home after having bound the covenant, but on the third hour of the next day, what did he see but fifty women who looked alike and dressed alike to Etain! All of his armies and hosts were silent, looking in confusion on the scene, but they were tired from this lengthy adventure, and bid him take his wife.

“What do you think?” asked Eochaid of the men of Ireland.

“We have no resolve in this,” said they.

“I do,” said Eochaid, “for my wife is the best at serving drinks in Ireland.”

So they divided up the women, and divided them up again and again until there were only two remaining. Eochaid gazed upon them in puzzlement, for one was clearly Etain, but had not her trick of serving drinks. They all took counsel, and said

“This is Etain, but it is not Etain, at least, not her serving,” so they setteld on that one as the wife of Eochaid and everyone departed, the women included. Eochaid's war upon the King of the Mounds became a matter of great legend, and they spoke with satisfaction of the high feats done by the oxen, and their rescue of a woman from the mounds.

Well, the next summer, and a fine warm summer it was, Eochaid arose from his bed and was holding conversation with his queen in the court, when who should walk in but Midir! They greeted one another with caution.

“You have not played me fair with the hardships you inflicted on me, considering the power you have and still demanded all that from me. There was nothing you didn't ask of me,” said Midir.

“I didn't sell you my wife,” said Eochaid.

“Answer me this then,” said Midir, “is your conscience clear and your mind at ease as far a we go?”

“It is,” said Eochaid.

“As is mine,” chuckled Midir, “for your wife was pregnant when she was taken from you, and she bore a daughter, and it is she who is with you. Your wife, meanwhile, is with me, and you let her go a second time!” and with that he vanished in his way.

Eochaid dared not to dig another mound, for the covenant he had agreed with Midir forbid it, and he was greatly and terribly grieved that he had lain with his own daughter. He learned that she was with child, and told his men to throw the child into a pit of beasts, so that they might never look upon one another.

They took the child to the house of Findlam the herdsman of Tara and threw the child in with the dogs, but the herdsman and his wife returned to find the creatures nestled up beside the babe. They were amazed, for they were without child, and so they raised her as their own, and she grew strong and a master of many arts and crafts.

After that Eochaid Airem grew darker and more of an evil nature, and his mind was troubled. He laid hard tribute and steep taxes on the five parts of Ireland, until at least the people could take no more, and a plot was hatched against Eochaid. His house was burned and his head was taken and brought to Connachta, and this poem was written of his end:

Eochaid Airem, noble, fair and graceful,
eminent high-king of Ireland,
extended his bold hard tribute,
it spread through Banda of of the brown cloaks.

The folk of Tethba of the stubborn fights
got the tribute of the king of Ireland.
The lawgiving king who ruled them, put
the seventh (part) on them alone.

Heavy sorrow of the host came
because of the monstrous unjust law,
anger was kindled among because of it,
until Eochaid Airem was slain.

The folk of Tethba, mighty of yore,
slew Eochaid of Fremaind
'Twas not strength with cause on their part,
because of the monstrous unjust law.

Mormael was the name of the king at first
by whom the great deed was done,
Fir Chul the name of the men of Tethba in the east
when Dun Fremainn was overpowered.

Though 'tis said that Sigmal of the spears
slew Eochaid Airem,
he died himself prior to Eochaid of Fremaind
in the succession of leaders.

Sigmall of the battling spears died
by the smooth bright face of Manannan;
a vast long time in the east, without weakness,
before Eochaid met his death.

The two Sigmalls of Sid Nennta,
intrepid their feet, mighty their prowess,
Sigmall son of Coirpre of the battles,
Sigmall who was at Eochaid's death.

Sigmall son of Brestine of lasting memory,
king of Bentraige with great triumph,
and great Mormael from the plain,
by them Eochaid perished.

 


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More Stories from the Mythological Cycle

Irish fairy tales, Irish folklore